When I returned to work after having my first baby in 2008, I asked where the nursing mother’s room was. I was informed that there wasn’t one. When I persisted, I was told I was the first woman ever to ask. In 2008.
Over a decade later, women still face unique challenges in the workplace—and they’re not just about breastfeeding.
We’ve all heard things like men are judged on their potential; women on their achievements or that women don’t communicate succinctly and are too quiet and need more time or information before speaking up in meetings. The terms “hepeating” and “mansplaining” have now become commonplace in our vernacular. And let us not forget the cursed RBF. All of this buzz adds up to one key piece, affirmed by the data again and again: women are scrutinized in the workplace more than men. This scrutiny especially applies to the balance between a “take charge” (think of someone brash and overly aggressive) and a “take care” (think of someone who apologizes too frequently and wants everyone to like them) attitude.
What DOES it take for a woman to get past these challenges? Intentionally balance connection and credibility.
Connection is your ability to develop rapport and trust, have people see you are on their side, and ultimately, have people want to follow you as a leader. One of the most powerful ways to facilitate connection is through genuine eye communication and warm facial expressions. Be conscientious of your facial expressions while listening and thinking, especially during video calls and meetings, and make an intentional effort to express warmth through a genuine smile. But be careful, it is possible to be too smiley and lose your authenticity. Know where you are at on the spectrum of smiling too much, or not enough: ask for feedback and watch yourself on video to master the balance.
Credibility is all about your voice and owning your space. When you’re standing, physically take up more room with good posture and large, natural gestures when you communicate. That will draw attention to your points. When you’re seated, shift your weight forward and lean in. Women have a tendency to cross their arms and legs, which keeps everything closer together and therefore, smaller. Don’t be afraid to extend your elbows and rest your hands on the table—it adds authority.
This past Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting article about how women can use gender stereotypes to their advantage by marrying warmth and authority. The next time you are at a happy hour or in a high-stakes meeting, consider your connection and credibility. Regardless of your gender, by exhibiting stronger leadership presence, you will gain buy-in faster, influence direction quicker and win more opportunities.